So You Want to Do a PhD

:
A Guide for the Aspiring Doctoral Candidate
¯
R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar
independent Scholar, Tinker, Author, Researcher (iSTAR)
chandra@swanlotus.com
http://chandra.swanlotus.com
o- Februarv io1o
.
.
Why do you want to do a PhD? Proceed further only if you are doing it for
yourself, out of your own interest, rather than because someone else wants
you to.
Before you select a research topic, university, and supervisor, explore thor-
oughly, reflect and choose carefully, and having chosen, pursue your goal
steadfastly until the end.
The only way you can fail to get a PhD is if you give up yourself. Never lose
motivation. Take breaks when necessary.
Master your subject. Read seminal papers. Plan and execute your research
competently and honestly. Manage your time frugally. Keep meticulous re-
cords. Write up your work in instalments. Prepare and present conference
papers. Keep submitting and revising manuscripts to journals until they are
accepted.
Rehearse repeatedly for your oral defence. Submit your thesis for examination.
Make all corrections necessary for the final submission. Get your doctorate.
Work to benefit humankind.
.Summary
1 Introduction
Tose who are fortunate enough to go to universitv usuallv heave a sigh of relief when thev gradu-
ate, ofen afer fifeen to eighteen vears of continuous education. Tev join the work force and are
¯
Tis is a chapter from mv forthcoming book Secrets of Academic Success to be published bv SwanLotus Cre-
ations. Te most recent version of this chapter mav alwavs be downloaded from http://academy.swanlotus.com/
downloads/PhDGuide.pdf. If vou wish to share it, please do not make copies, but rather refer others to this site, so
that all mav benefit from the latest version. Kindlv email comments and corrections to chandra@swanlotus.com.
Please also note that, although this material is freelv downloadable, it is copvrighted:
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o.
1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
quite happv to put into practice what thev have studied, serving societv, and being rewarded in
return with a good salarv and social status.
With the rapid explosion and democratization of knowledge, however, merelv completing an
undergraduate degree does not alwavs ensure a good job or a comfortable life. Tis spurs manv
to pursue graduate degree programmes that award a master’s degree or a doctorate. Tose who
take the latter path mav do so afer joining the workforce in the “real” world, or thev mav remain
solelv in academia afer their basic degree, to complete a doctorate, teach, and do research.
Whatever vour purpose, and at whatever stage in vour life vou decide to do postgraduate work,
there are certain issues that vou must consider before vou embark on a PhD.' Tis short guide is
intended to assist the aspiring doctoral candidate in thinking things through before taking the
PhD plunge. It will help vou clarifv for vourself, whv vou are doing what vou are doing, what lies
ahead, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to gain fulfilment in the process.
i Brief history of the PhD as a degree
Te title of the undergraduate degree usuallv has the word bachelor in it, and comes fromthe Latin
baccalaureus meaning “apprentice” or “advanced student”. Further studv ofen leads to a degree
with the word master in it, and this comes from the Latin magister meaning “master”, “director”,
or “teacher”, and denotes a higher qualification in that subject. Imagine an apprentice carpenter
who has worked his wav to become a master carpenter and the titles will fall into place.
Te tradition of the doctoral degree originated in Germanv. Te PhD degree and its siblings
all embodv the Latin word doctor which means teacher. Te PhD or Doctor of Philosophv degree
comes from the Latin Philosophiæ Doctor meaning “teacher of philosophv”. Historicallv, anv dis-
cipline of studv outside theologv, medicine, and the law was considered to be philosophv. Later
on, science was called natural philosophv. Todav, the PhD is an advanced academic degree con-
ferred bv manv universities in a varietv of subjects. But bear in mind that theologv, medicine, and
the law, given their historv, confer doctorates bearing other titles.
Some universities also confer a degree called a licentiate, from the Latin licentia doctorandi
meaning “qualified to teach”. Tis is sometimes equivalent to a master’s degree. Some universities
call the PhD the DPhil degree. In the United States and most Commonwealth countries, a PhD
is sufficient for the holder to be accorded teaching rights at a universitv. Some European univer-
sities, however, require a PhD holder to submit a postdoctoral thesis through a process known
as habilitation meaning “to make able to”, before being accorded venia legendi or “permission for
lecturing”.
.
.In sum, a PhD in any discipline is simply a licence to teach that subject at uni-
versity level.
.★
: Pre-requisites and processes
Te aspiring doctoral candidate should have a verv good undergraduate degree, or a master’s de-
gree, before she or he can enrol for a PhD. In manv universities, the candidate is required to sit
'Or other doctoral degree. Te term PhD is used genericallv here and also applies to other earned research doc-
torates, such as the MD, LLD, ID, etc.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page i of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
for qualifying examinations before doctoral enrolment is approved.
Requirements for the PhD degree varv with discipline, universitv, and countrv. Generallv, it
entails the following:
1. Passing a number of qualifving examinations—usuallv at the final-vear undergraduate level—in
subjects relevant to the chosen field of research;
i. Enrolment in a number of advanced courses relevant to the field of research, and satisfact-
orilv passing examinations in them;
:. Suitablv framing a topic for research and getting approval from the universitv to undertake
it;
a. Engaging in the actual research under the supervision of one or more qualified supervisors;
-. Documenting the research and its outcomes bv writing a dissertation or thesis and getting it
passed, with or without corrections, bv a panel of expert examiners; and
o. Successfullv defending the thesis orallv before a panel of expert examiners and all-comers.
.
.The primary requirement for a PhD is that the doctoral research should result
in a substantial and original contribution to knowledge in the field.
.★
In praxis-oriented disciplines, e.g., music or drama, the thesis mav form a small component
and, sav audio-visual documentation, a larger component of the research submission. In all cases,
though, the requirement for the research to contribute significant, new knowledge remains un-
changed.
One of the criteria of good research is that it should be publishable in high qualitv research
journals in the field. If a candidate has alreadv published such research, it is a good sign that the
degree is almost in the bag. If the candidate has not done so, the thesis examiners will comment
on whether the calibre of research is of sufficient qualitv to merit publication in reputable journals.
Tis peer-reviewed research has been the gold standard that has kept knowledge untainted bv fraud
and plagiarism: no new knowledge is admitted into the fold unless those held to be the experts
deem it so worthv.
a Why do you want to do a PhD:
Te PhD is, as we have seen, a licence to teach at tertiarv level. If one asks oneself the question
“Whv do I want to do a PhD degree:” the answers could be one or more of the following:
1. I have won a scholarship to do a PhD;
i. I want to teach at universitv level;
:. I want to secure tenure at mv universitv;
a. I want to do research;
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page : of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
-. I want to earn more monev;
o. I want to fulfil an ambition to do a PhD;
¬. I like the title Doctor before mv name;
8. I want to become a specialist working in a government agencv or in industrv;
o. I want to start mv own consulting firm; etc.
Needless to sav, the above list is not exhaustive, Te reasons for doing a PhD are as numerous
and varied as the human beings who enrol for the degree. But vou must be clear whv vou want to
do the degree before vou embark upon it. Tere will be times during vour candidature when vou
would doubt vour own sanitv for having enrolled for the degree. Or the sacrifice of time or familv
relationships might induce vou to throw in the towel before vou get the degree.
.
.So, it is vital that you are clear in your own mind why you are enrolled for the
PhD. Those reasons are the bedrock upon which you build your work. If you
lack that bedrock of personal conviction, and are doing a PhDsimply to please
someone else, youmight want tore-consider your decisionbefore it is toolate.
.★
= Selecting a research area
In manv cases, selecting a research area is an obvious and uncomplicated decision. You know the
field in which vou earned vour bachelor’s and master’s degrees. You wish to progress further in
the same field bv enlarging upon the research that vou started in vour earlier degrees, and that’s
that.
In other cases, it might be quite different. You might have started out as a pure mathematician
and now want to do a PhD in phvsics. Tat is not too great a leap, and preciselv one that manv
have made. To accommodate rare talent, some universities offer sandwich programmes in which
a candidate can enrol, for example, for a PhD in engineering and also an MD in medicine. Or a
combination of doctorates in law and engineering. Tere are some people who just love working
in trans-disciplinarv areas like these, and thev thrive on the challenge, and excel because there are
so few like them.
Other considerations could also come in. If vou are contemplating a PhD in economics and
plan on making a killing at the stock exchange from vour research, choosing vour field would
be like taking a gamble. If vou are intending to studv marine biologv, but live in a land-locked
countrv, vou must factor in living in another countrv during vour PhD and afer vou complete it.
Location, prospective emplovers, the job market, availabilitv of scholarships, and a host of
factors all feedinto the decisionof choosing vour fieldof doctoral research. Whatever vour specific
circumstances, if vou do not love the area in which vou wish to do research, vou will not succeed,
much less thrive.
.
.So above all, choose to research something you love, for that will keep you
going when all else tells you to stop.
.★
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
o Choosing a university
Te choice of universitv is, for manv, a foregone conclusion. It could be a universitv that is in one’s
hometown, or the one which offered the most attractive scholarship, or the one that boasts of a
world-famous researcher in the field, etc. Or the choice of universitv might simplv be a Hobson’s
choice.
Universities the world over are becoming more corporatized, more homogeneous in their out-
look, and more integrated with each other through the ubiquitv of the Internet. Research at manv
universities is conducted at “Centres of Excellence” of one sort or another. If the area in which
vou are contemplating research falls within the purview of such a centre at a particular univer-
sitv, and that centre has a good track record in research, that could help vou make vour choice
of institution. Remember that vour fellow PhD students contribute a great deal to the qualitv of
vour life at universitv. A good research centre will have a healthv diversitv of PhD students, doing
research on a varietv of topics, who could go a long wav toward enhancing vour experience as a
PhD candidate.
Te onlv thing to avoid is shadv “universities” which are not accredited, and which offer higher
degrees within a matter of weeks, usuallv on pavment of fees via the Internet. No serious doctoral
candidate would countenance participating in these laughable scams, but I mention them to alert
the unwarv.
¬ Te PhD supervisor
Te PhD supervisor is vour friend, guide, and philosopher on vour vovage toward a PhD. It is
important that vou search thoroughlv, choose carefullv, and stick with vour choice steadfastlv
until vou complete vour PhD.
Te choice of supervisor is entwined with the choice of research topic and, of course, choice
of universitv. Take vour time to make an informed choice that vou are comfortable with, and
that vou do not regret later. Incidentallv, the supervisor is also called the guide, the advisor, etc.,
depending on the universitv and its tradition.
Manv universities currentlv mandate that everv doctoral student should have at least two su-
pervisors, one of whom will act as principal supervisor. Tere are also ofen rules of engagement
which dictate the minimumfrequencv of meetings, the documentation of meetings, the frequencv
of research progress reports, etc., during the candidature. While these are guidelines that prevent
vou from falling off the rails, thev do not impact on the personal nature of interaction between
supervisor and student.
.
. The choice of PhD supervisor can often make or break your PhD.
.★
It is probablv the most visceral aspect of vour work: where vour personalitv, work ethic, at-
titude to the topic, meticulousness or lack of it, etc., confront vour supervisors’ counterparts. If
there is a happv harmonv, vou will most likelv sail smoothlv. While a svmpathetic supervisor mav
be a boon, an antagonistic supervisor could also be a blessing in disguise. He or she mav present
vou with the verv arguments vour examiners might, and it is better to encounter such opposition
earlv in the dav than to have vour thesis dashed to bits at vour oral defence, and have to return to
the grinding wheel for another vear or two.
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
Tere are several archetvpes for the supervisor. I shall enumerate three extreme cases: the
autocrat, the laissez faire character, and the mentor-friend.
¬.1 Te autocrat
Te autocrats wish vou to work as a “glorified slave” doing their bidding. It is almost as if such
supervisors would like to do the research themselves, but for the fact that thev do not have enough
pairs of hands and enough time. So, vou the poor PhD candidate, function as an extension of
themselves. You are not allowed to think for vourself or to offer an opposing viewpoint. You just
do as as vou are told. Such a relationship is obviouslv unequal and does little to develop self-
reliance and confidence in the research student.
Autocrats are ofen intolerant of errors. Remember that it is bv making mistakes that the most
enduring lessons are learned. Anvone who is unwilling to allow vou to make mistakes is actu-
allv impeding vour own educational development. Some autocrats are verv busv people wielding
enormous influence among their peers, the universitv administration, and among research fund-
ing agencies. Tev mav not have enough time to meet ofen or to allow a constructive two-wav
discussion. Moreover, their eminence might dissuade vou from asking fundamental questions
that are troubling vou; questions that you should never be afraid to ask. Would vou reallv like to
work with someone like that:
If in the end, vou decide for good reasons to do research under the supervision of an autocrat,
make a pact with vourself that vou will never give up vour PhD because of problems with vour
supervisor.
¬.i Te laissez faire or laid-back type
Te laissez faire character is the antithesis of the autocrat and practises the gentle art of “non-
interference,” and ofen the even gentler art of laziness. Sometimes this might go to the extreme
of meeting vou perhaps onlv once during vour entire candidature and of knowing vour research
topic onlv verv superficiallv. If vou are self-motivated, confident, and have masterv of vour subject,
this tvpe of supervisor mav be ideal for vou. Tere are occasions, however, when it helps if vou
can bounce ideas off someone, be it an academic or a fellow student. If a laissez faire supervisor
cannot perform this role, make sure that someone who can is on vour panel of supervisors as a
co-supervisor.
¬.: Te mentor-friend
Te supervisor who functions as friend and mentor is ideallv suited to manv students. Tis person
is able to nurture the student without stifling his or her growth as a researcher. Tev have achieved
sufficient eminence that thev are not concerned that their students will steal the limelight awav
fromthem. Such supervisors are generallv humble, approachable, affable, and disciplined enough
to meet regularlv, and to give truthful feedback, be it positive or negative. Tev do not punish vou
for making mistakes but rather emphasize the didactic nature of errors: what can vou learn from
them: If vou are fortunate enough in getting a mentor-friend tvpe as vour principal supervisor,
vou are generallv in safe hands, but that does not absolve vou from taking responsibilitv for vour
progress and timelv completion.
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
¬.a Ask other PhD students
Other PhD students are ofen the most reliable source of information about how different aca-
demics stack up as PhD supervisors, especiallv from the student’s viewpoint. Enquire and seek
their counsel before vou make vour choice.
For example, how soon does a supervisor grant a request for a meeting: How soon before a
querv relating to the research is answered: If it takes half a semester before a supervisor responds
to an urgent question, perhaps vou should look elsewhere. Ask questions like these from which
vou can get objective answers untainted bv opinion.
Youshould also ask subjective questions. For example, does the student feel that the supervisor
is fair: How productive are meetings with the supervisor: Does the supervisor appear to be out
of his or her depth in the particular research topic: Is there anv aspect of the student-supervisor
relationship that arouses unease in the student: Answers to such subjective questions reflect on
both the student and the supervisor, and must be taken with a grain of salt. However, if all students
under a particular supervisor give vou adverse comments, that is a red flag which vou should not
ignore.
If vou ask enough students—spread across different research areas and supervisors in the de-
partment—vou will soon be able to form an overall picture from their answers that will help vou
select vour supervisor, or least warn vou about whom vou should stav awav from.
¬.= Grant applications
Research is criticallv dependant upon funding, and manv PhD students are expected to pitch in
when their supervisor writes a grant application. You might be pressed into service to provide
material for these. But take care that vou are not taken advantage of: for example, vou should
not be asked to shoulder the burden of writing the whole grant application. Your PhD scholarship
could have come from a previous successful grant application. So, do vour mite cheerfullv if vou
are asked to contribute an explanatorv paragraph or two, and perhaps a list of publications.
¬.o Detours
Beware of supervisors who constantlv keep changing the goalposts of the research problem, per-
haps to maintain continued research funding. Te student is then a glorified servant, much like
in the autocratic case, and the worst outcome is a hodge podge of unrelated research projects that
cannot satisfv the universitv that it is a single integrated bodv of work, suitable for the award of a
PhD.
Another danger fromsupervisors is that thev could lead vou down a track that takes vou awav
from vour main research topic and that could potentiallv be a dead end. It is criticallv important
that vou have a clearlv defined research proposal with definite milestones and a final goal. If not,
vou could be doing much and achieving little.
Because vou are doing research and uncovering new knowledge, neither vour supervisor nor
vou can be expected to know what vour research outcomes would be, or where vour research
would ultimatelv lead. If vou did, it would not be research in the first place. To avoid being
trapped bv this, it is important that vour supervisors have enough collective research supervision
experience to identifv potential cul de sacs into which vou should not strav.
If vou have a problem with vour principal supervisor, vou should be able to seek counsel,
comfortablv and confidentiallv, fromvour other supervisor(s) and resolve the matter productivelv
and amicablv with all of them.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page ¬ of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
¬.¬ Beware the rolling stone
Some students start out on a project with a supervisor who has inspired themonlv to find out that
the topic was not interesting enough, or that thev could not work fruitfullv with their supervisor.
Tis leads to a change of topic, or of supervisor, or both. If this change were made without enough
thought and analvsis, but rather because of fear or anger or some other emotion, it might lead to
the same problems again. Avoidbeing caught inthis trapof endless change of topic andsupervisor.
Youwill be wasting valuable time, and will achieve nothing inthe endunless voustick to vour topic
and supervisor.
.
.For that, I reiterate: explore thoroughly, reflect and choose very carefully, and
pursue your goal steadfastly until the end.
.★
¬.8 Honesty and integrity
As the last word on supervisors, I would sav that above all else, seek a principal supervisor who has
honestv and integritv. If these qualities are lacking in an otherwise eminent person, mv personal
advice is to forgo the eminent supervisor and work under the guidance of a lesser achiever who
has honestv and integritv.
8 Te research proposal
Your research proposal is a vital document. It sets the tone and goal for anvwhere between three
vears (full time) and eight vears (part time) of vour research life. One does not wander willv nillv
in search of inspiration on what research to do next. One follows a well-worn path to search out
and scope a problem of sufficient interest and impact, but which has hitherto not been studied.
Te topic of research is then enunciated, so that regardless of research outcome, a degree mav be
awarded at the end. An example will help here.
Suppose vou wanted to do research to create a black-coloured rose. You could define vour
topic to be “Te creation of a hvbrid black-coloured rose.” Suppose at the end of about four vears
of full time research, the closest vou could get was a verv deep purple rose, but not a strictlv black
one. Unfortunatelv, vou mav not have lefvourself enough leewav to claimcompletion of research.
If instead, vou had defined vour proposal to be “An investigation into the production of a
hvbrid black-coloured rose,” vou could verv well claimthat a purple rose, of hitherto unseen depth
of colour, is a significant advance. What is more, vou could claimto have completed vour research.
You would also have laid a solid foundationfor future research that could verv well lead to a perfect
black rose.
Universities varv in how seriouslv thev approach the formulation of the research proposal. In
some universities, afer a period of preliminarv studv, completing examinable units, the candidate
is asked to undertake a survev of the literature in the broad research area. She or he must master
the basic knowledge in the field bv self-studv, and must identifv the major unanswered questions,
or existing contradictions or paradoxes, that are worthv of further studv. In some cases, the pro-
posal would extend the envelope of existing knowledge, such as in the above hvpothetical case of
producing a hvbrid black rose.
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
Te candidate must then carefullv summarize the existing state of knowledge and must formu-
late the research proposal carefullv, so as not to prejudice the granting of a degree later on. Tis
proposal must then be presented to a committee of academic facultv and perhaps, extra-mural
experts, who will debate on its acceptabilitv. Tev will ask questions like these:
1. Is it something that has alreadv been done before:
i. Is it interesting enough to be worthwhile:
:. Has the proposal been formulated carefullv so that the student mav be awarded the degree
regardless of the research outcome, whether positive or negative:
a. Is it well-founded on the existing bodv of knowledge:
-. Is the scope feasible for the envisaged time frame:
o. What is the closest bodv of existing knowledge and who are the research leaders for that:
Te candidate will verv likelv be quizzed, and the proposal turned over several times like a
pancake, and viewed from all angles, before the committee gives its blessing.
Tere are universities where there is no formal proposal process. Worse still, the student is
given free rein and mav not have an idea about where he or she is headed, until expirv of a schol-
arship or financial imperatives finallv force the thesis to be written.
It is then that the knottv problem of “what in the world have I worked on for four vears:”
suddenlv strikes the student with alarming force. Panic ofen ensues before a plan for a patchwork
quilt of a thesis is worked on, in consultation with the panel of supervisors. Do not ever allow
vourself to get into this mess. Even if vour universitv is relaxed about a research proposal, make
sure vou are not, and take steps to formulate a rigorous and worthwhile proposal, in consultation
with vour panel of supervisors. It is time and effort well spent.
o Visualizing the end: thesis writing and the oral defence
Successful people ofen stronglv visualize the goal that thev are striving to achieve. In vour case,
it is fulfilling the requirements for the PhD. Tis means writing the thesis and preparing for vour
oral defence. Neither of these should be taken lightlv.
o.1 Tesis writing
.
. You should start work on your thesis from the very beginning.
.★
Writing is a demanding discipline. Tose who do it well make it seem effortless. Tose who
do not excel at it look upon it as an unpleasant chore. Tose who dread it, put it off for as long as
thev can. Make sure vou are not in the last categorv.
I have written a separate chapter entitled How to Write a esis where I have gone into the
process of thesis writing in some depth. Read it carefullv before vou start vour research work.
You would then start off on the right footing. Do not think of writing up as an aferthought or
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page o of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
something that vou can do overnight. Believe me: it takes at least six months, and possiblv a
full vear of sustained effort to produce a good qualitv thesis. Your thesis is the first document bv
which vour examining committee will encounter vour work. Give it vour best shot and do vourself
a favour.
Tesis preparation can be aided bv the judicious use of sofware. Use a document tvpesetting
program and bibliographic reference management program that vou are comfortable with. I per-
sonallv use the freelv available, open source, T
E
X-based L
A
T
E
X and X
E
T
E
X document preparation
svstems and allied sofware for preparing illustrations and managing bibliographies. Te initial
learning curve is steep, but once vou have mastered that, the rewards are great. Especiallv valuable
is the advice of hundreds if not thousands of academics and researchers from all fields, who are
available for help through Internet newsgroups and mailing lists. I heartilv recommend this path,
if vou have not made a choice vet.
Manv universities now require the thesis to be available electronicallv, sav in Portable Doc-
ument Format (PDF). Ensure that whatever sofware vou have chosen to prepare vour thesis is
capable of seamlesslv exporting the output in the prescribed format, without anv hassles.
o.i Oral defence
Te oral defence` is perhaps the most dreaded part of the whole PhD process. Tere is something
unnerving about a face-to-face encounter with experts who, however svmpathetic thev mav be
toward vour work, put on an adversarial stance in order to ferret out anv weaknesses that mav
lurk within it. Te fact that thev are not fellow students but experienced and learned academics
might make this seeman uneven gladiatorial contest. Banish such thoughts and visualize vourself
as the expert and vour committee as a bunch of school kids whomvou are going to enlighten. I do
not mean that vou should be arrogant, but please do not do vourself the disservice of becoming
nervous or dumbstruck before vour committee.
Prepare vour talk using appropriate technologv. Make sure that vou have enough material but
not too much. It is better to have too few slides than too manv. Give vourself enough time. Speak
clearlv and slowlv. Anticipate questions that vou might be asked. Remember that some experts
mav have onlv glancing acquaintance with vour topic and could ask questions around the topic
rather than on it. Be prepared for such questions bv reading up thoroughlv on related research.
Of course vou should be master of vour own work. Practise as manv as twenty times, if necessarv,
so that vour oral defence is flawless. Realize that vou get to do an oral defence of vour PhD onlv
once in vour life. Let it be memorable and triumphant.
1o How not to “not get a PhD”`
.
. The only way not to get a PhD is to give it up yourself.
.★
Tere is no other wav, once vou have been enrolled as a doctoral candidate, and as long as vou do
not engage in deceit or unacceptable behaviour. It is therefore instructive to look at the wavs in
which vou might be persuaded to give up and also how to avoid that.
`Also called viva voce or simplv viva, (literallv “with living voice”) at British and European universities.
`Inspired bv chapter a of [1].
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
1o.1 Helplessness
About six months into vour research proper, vou will feel a sense of helplessness. You would have
alreadv done vour literature search and perhaps written an interim report or two. But vou would
suddenlv come to the realization that vou are well and trulv at sea and rudderless too! You would
despair of ever being able to do research; the task seems hopelesslv overwhelming.
You might be scared that someone else somewhere, working on the same topic, might pip vou
to the finish. Worse still, vou might regret deciding to do a PhD in the first place. What seemed
such a charming proposition at first, now seems like an endeavour undertaken in a fit of insanitv.
Like seasickness, a good manv do not suffer from such feelings, but quite a few others do.
You need to pep talk vourself out of this mood of despair. Tis is where vour reasons for doing
vour PhD come into plav. Tev will keep vou focused, on track, and on time.
1o.i Time
It is verv easv to squander time during the earlv stages of vour doctoral work. Your PhD might be
vour first taste of academic freedom awav from the regimentation of undergraduate assignments
and examinations. But remember that this freedom comes with responsibilitv.
You are responsible for vour time; use it frugallv. Tere is no immediate feedback when vou
lag behind or slack off. But retribution is swif and sudden when vou run out of time. Manv
universities have a cut-off time frame afer which vour PhD candidature will not be renewed.
Tis varies bv countrv and universitv, but vou do not have an indefinite period within which to
complete.
.
.To avoid the time-trap, be businesslike from the start of your programme.
.★
Ten vou will not have the pressure of time, on top of other pressures. Do not procrastinate on
writing up. Start earlv and revise vour drafs so that vour thesis can be passed with few or no
corrections.
1o.: Money
Most students complete their PhDs on scholarships because higher degree fees are prohibitive.
Tese scholarships are subject to satisfactorv documented progress and could be renewed perhaps
for an extra semester or two. But when the scholarship runs out, vou mav not have the luxurv of
working full time on vour research or thesis writing.
If vou can get an academic job—like a tutor or teaching assistant—at the universitv where vou
are enrolled, that would be ideal to fund vou over the final, vulnerable lap when vou complete
vour research and write up vour thesis.
If not, vou might be forced to seek emplovment outside academia. You then run the risk of
drifing awav from the immediacv of vour research and settling into the workadav routine. You
could also use work and its pressure as an excuse to get awav from writing vour thesis. If vou
fall into this trap, vou risk not completing vour thesis. Whatever the demands on vour time and
energv, discipline vourself and write up vour thesis. Better still, complete vour PhD and submit
vour thesis before vour scholarship runs out. If vou are disciplined from the beginning, vou can
do so easilv.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 11 of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
1o.a Competing priorities
.
.Completing a PhDrequires an almost monastic dedication to the task at hand.
.★
If vou are voung and proceeding to vour PhD immediatelv afer finishing vour first or second
degrees, vou might find vour social life competing for attention. Romance and marriage mav and
ofen do claim vour attention and time. You then have to balance vour priorities so that vou are
fulfilled as a person without compromising on vour goal of a PhD.
If vou are a mature-age student with a spouse and familv to look afer, it is even more com-
plicated. You need vour spouse’s unflinching support for vour enterprise of getting a PhD. Tere
could be role reversals, and even times when vou are not available to vour familv for extended
periods.
Each of these situations brings with it its own emotional stresses and strains. You need to be
def at juggling these competing demands and vet have vour eve on the goal. If vou are committed
to vour familv and to vour PhD, vou will find a wav to balance the two and succeed at both.
1o.= Ioss of motivation
.
.The worst thing that can happen is for you to lose motivation at some point in
your PhD.
.★
Perhaps some of the factors outlined previouslv have knocked a hole in vour determination. Per-
haps vou have just seen a newlv published paper that is about the verv thing vou are working
on, and vou fear it mav steal not onlv vour thunder but also vour chances of getting a PhD. It
is easv to get discouraged and view things as being worse than thev reallv are. Perhaps the just
published paper approaches vour problem from another viewpoint and does not reallv pose a
threat to vour work. Indeed, it might highlight the importance of vour research topic, as being of
interest to other researchers, and therebv underscore the importance of vour own research. So,
vour research could still be relevant, and new, and original.
Sometimes, vou might develop a distaste for what vou are doing because of over-exposure to
the subject. It might be a monotonous laboratorv routine, a sofware error vou cannot localize,
a theorem on which vou are stuck, data that somehow seems inconsistent, or a performance that
clearlv does not gel. Whatever vour field, and whatever vour problem, this distaste is a sign that
vou need a break.
Contemplate a holidav, perhaps afer presenting a conference paper overseas. Or do some
writing up on vour thesis. If nothing else appeals to vou, do something mind-numbinglv relaxing
like tvping up vour bibliographv. If vou are in need of a fresh viewpoint, talk to some else: a fellow
student, a facultv member who mav not be on vour panel, an academic from another discipline,
or simplv a familv friend.
Do something sufficientlv different from what vou have been doing so far, and vet somehow
linked to vour work. You do not want to take a break that is so long or comfortable that vou do
not feel like returning to vour PhD work. But vou do need to do something definite and different
to dispel the staleness or distaste that makes vou lose motivation.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1i of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
.
.Do not ever lose your motivation. Remember that even after your thesis has
been examined, it is only after all corrections are in that you can relax and say,
“been there; done that.”
.★
1o.o Bureaucratic dereliction
Sometimes not filing a progress report to fulfil universitv or scholarship regulations can lead to
vour candidature being revoked. Avoid dereliction of bureaucratic requirements because it is such
a trivial reason for which to jeopardize vour PhD. Follow the rules and satisfv the powers that be,
keeping vour eves ever on vour goal.
11 Will power, guts, and gumption
Tere will be inevitable setbacks on vour road to a PhD. You might have had a verbal tiff with
vour supervisor. You might have made an expensive mistake in an experiment. You might have
received a rejection letter for a journal submission. Te list is endless.
Do not be discouraged. You are not alone. Remember that the greatest scholars have had
their books and papers rejected. Your first rejection letter betokens vour membership into their
distinguished companv. Keep working awav on vour publications until thev see the light of dav.
Te stout of heart and firm of resolve will prevail in the end. For this vou need will power, guts,
and gumption.
1i Te art of doing research
Te PhD is ultimatelv a testament to the fact that vou can conduct supervised research. Te art of
doing research is rapidlv changing, especiallv in the interconnected world of knowledge available
though the Internet and the World Wide Web. See mv chapter entitled Harnessing the Power of the
Web to Learn and Do Research for an up-to-date summarv. Here we look brieflv at the art of doing
research per se.
1i.1 Know your subject thoroughly
Tere is no substitute for knowledge. Youare onthe roadto becoming a teacher (or doctor) invour
subject at an advanced level. Needless to sav, vou should have alreadv mastered the fundamentals
of vour subject bv now. If vou have not, vou should resist the temptation to paper over the cracks
in vour knowledge.
If vour knowledge of the foundations of vour home discipline are shakv, the first thing to do is
to acknowledge that fact. Ten identifv well-written undergraduate or graduate texts in the field
and work through them. Find out if relevant final-vear undergraduate or graduate units are taught
at vour universitv, and enrol in them if vou can.
Surf the web. Manv of the world’s leading universities, like the Universitv of California, Berke-
lev, Yale, MIT, the Indian Institutes of Technologv, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon Universitv, Oxford,
and Te Open Universitv, have all started putting some of their courses online for free [i–a], ofen
complete with questions and assignments, that vou can use for self-education and self-assessment.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1: of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
Use whatever means vou can to bring vourself up to speed in vour discipline. Do not fret over the
time spent on this: it is an investment in knowledge that vou cannot do without.
Challenge vourself bv attempting some past final-vear examination papers in relevant units at
vour universitv. If vou are able to breeze through them, vou have an objective measure of vour own
masterv of the fundamentals of vour subject. If vou are in a praxis-based discipline, test vourself
bv asking an expert to gauge vour performance in the area.
.
.My unequivocal advice toyouis to ensure that youhave anunshakable found-
ationof knowledge inyour chosendiscipline(s) before youstart onthe special-
ized research that will earn you your PhD.
.★
1i.i Read and internalize seminal papers
Once vou have mastered the basics of vour field, vou are qualified to enter the inner sanctum of
advanced knowledge. Identifv the trailblazers in vour area. Read their papers. Tis should give
vou a broad viewof where the research is heading. Tis overviewof the field is vital in formulating
vour research proposal.
Tis step in the process has an analogv in the wav we see things. When something is far awav
we see it as the merest speck, un-identifiable as anvthing specific, but an object that is distinct
from its background, nevertheless. As it approaches closer, we are able to make out a silhouette
that allows us to guess what the object could be. As we get still closer, it is clear what the object is,
but the details escape us. Finallv when we are right in front of the object, we see it clearlv for what
it is, details and all.
Tis is exactlv how vour approach to vour research field should pan out. Te detail that vou
see close up cannot and should not obscure the global overview that vou had when viewing the
silhouette. Both are essential to demonstrate masterv of vour chosen research area.
Once vou have got the large scale picture, vou should progress bv reading and assimilating
the classic seminal papers in the turf where vou have chosen to pitch vour research tent. Look at
how leading researchers have surveved the area. Do also read important and interesting papers
bv relativelv unknown researchers because thev might embodv valuable insights. Do not gloss
over a paper simplv because of its age. Te authors of vestervear were ofen the crème de la crème
of their generation and their papers could still vield rare nuggets of truth that might have been
missed bv others.
Most of all, vou should internalize this newfound knowledge. Onlv then are vou readv to as-
cend vour chosen peak of research. Iust as those attempting to conquer the Everest train hard, and
methodicallv prepare themselves bv scaling similar peaks, so should vou use the papers written
bv others to prepare vourself to prosecute vour own research.
1i.: Prepare a critical survey
Bv now vou should have a solid feel for vour research area. Tis is the time vou should prepare
a critical survev of the research literature in vour field. Look at what has gone on before. Look
at what is being done at present. Identifv what needs to be done, but has not been. Single out
interesting questions that have not been answered. Are there anv contradictions or paradoxes or
glaring omissions: Is there anvthing that vou, as a relative newcomer, find strange or unsettling:
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1a of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
.
.This critical survey reflects your state-of-the-field summary of the research
area, illuminated by your own insight, after your assimilation of the research
literature.
.★
Ideallv, vou now have the expert knowledge required to formulate vour research proposal intelli-
gentlv.
Iulius Caesar is famed for his words “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” which translate to “I came, I saw, I
conquered.” Let vour critical survev be the “I saw” part of this process and let it lead to the “I
conquered” stage of vour PhD journev.
1i.a Repeat some previous work
You are now readv to commence vour research proper. Sometimes this presents its own set of
“starting problems.” One wav to ease vour entrv into research is to repeat something that someone
else has alreadv done successfullv. It is a bit like cooking a dish for the first time, following a recipe
written bv a chef. Because someone else has alreadv done it, there is no anxietv about whether
what is proposed is feasible. Tis allows vou to concentrate on technique and skills.
Tis will probablv be vour first taste of what it means to “do research.” In all likelihood, vou
will love doing whatever vou are doing and become totallv absorbed in it. Tis mental absorption
leads to great inner fulfilment. You get a “high” because vou are creativelv engaged in something
vou passionatelv believe in. Tere is also the added satisfaction that what vou do could later be-
nefit humankind in some wav or another. Finallv, when vou successfullv conclude vour “repeat
experiment” vou would have gained the confidence that vou too can do what others have done.
Doing research now does seem to be within vour grasp.
.
.This conviction or sense of “can do,” earned through your own hard work, is
the most valuable and durable research currency you will earn fromyour PhD.
.★
1i.= Plan and execute your own original work
You are now readv to plan and execute vour own original work. You should plan vour work be-
forehand, whether it be laboratorv-based experiments, a computer simulation, a field trip to an
anthropological site, a psvchologv experiment needing manv volunteers, an ethicallv-constrained
studv of a drug on humans, a performance of a forgotten dance, or analvzing the work habits of
computer geeks.
You are likelv to need time, monev, hardware, sofware, some data, perhaps some laboratorv
animals or human volunteers, travel plans, etc. You should marshal all the necessarv resources
so that vour research is not delaved bv their lack. Make sure that all bureaucratic hurdles are
surmounted, whether thev be customs and immigration formalities, or getting the approval of
universitv ethics committees.
Tere are specific questions that vou need to answer if vou are doing research related to hu-
man health. You will need controls for experiments, and double blind experimental protocols to
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1- of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
exclude human and interpretational bias. If there are anv such special issues impacting on vour
research, make sure vou encounter them head on now, and seek professional statistical help if
necessarv, rather than wait to have vour results trashed later because of poor protocols.
At this stage, vou are giving birth to the original component of research that will go into vour
thesis. It is paramount that vou should keep good records.
.
.Write results using ink, not pencil. Do not write on paper scraps but in a prop-
erly bound notebook. Record your thoughts, flashes of inspiration, the set-
backs you faced, how you solved them, etc.
.★
While all this material need not find its wav into vour thesis, some of it invariablv will. Whatever
will help a fellowresearcher later in time, whether it be optimizing a protocol, or avoiding a pitfall,
is valuable enough to be bequeathed, through vour thesis, to a future generation of researchers.
Your original contribution will verv likelv come in manv parts. Tere will be several experi-
ments, or a number of projects, or a few performances, or a few of whatever, depending on vour
field of research. Each time vou are finished with one chunk of work, make sure that vou have
written evervthing up clearlv and lef nothing unrecorded. Seek vour supervisors’ input on this.
One of the most heart-breaking events vou want to avoid is to repeat past work because some
parameter was not recorded, or some drawing was missing, or some protocol was not properlv
observed, or because a multimedia record of a performance vou directed was out of focus and
noisv.
Te first person who needs to understand vour experiments or projects is vourself. If vou
cannot make head or tail of them when vou look them over afer, sav six months, then vou have
done vourself in. So, be kind to yourself, and do it well the first and final time.
At this stage, vou should be somewhere between the half and three quarter mark of vour PhD
programme. Do not panic if vou have consumed more time, but be aware that time is not on vour
side. Do vour work svstematicallv. Practise the self-discipline of recording evervthing neatlv,
legiblv, understandablv, and in one place.
1i.o If you get stuck
If vou get stuck while conducting vour original research, vou can turn to manv sources for help.
Because the PhD is supervised research, vou are not working alone. You have the benevolent over-
sight of vour panel of supervisors. One of them will certainlv have some word of wisdom that
could direct vou out of vour current impasse. Ten, there is the literature. Tere is the Web. And
a Google search might be all vou need to pick vourself up and get on track again. Moreover, there
are fellow PhD students to whom vou could turn for assistance.
.
. The one thing you should not and cannot afford to do is to stagnate.
.★
Imagine vour research as being a vehicle, sav a motorcar. It is suddenlv stuck in the mud. You do
not get out and wail vour heart out in despair. You put vour shoulder to the vehicle and trv to get
it out. Or vou enlist the help of passersbv. Or vou call for help on vour mobile phone. You do what
it takes to get it unstuck. Te same applies to vour research work.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1o of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
1: Writing conference and journal papers
Writing vour first research paper is a new experience. It need not be daunting. Because vou have
mastered vour subject and criticallv surveved the literature, vou knowvour subject. Afer vou have
completed some module of research, vou could be in a position to prepare and present vour first
conference paper.
You might experience some hesitation in doing this. Overcome that reluctance. Verv likelv,
vou think that what vou have to sav mav not be significant enough to merit a conference paper.
Let the referees who review vour paper decide that. Perhaps a fellow researcher or PhD candidate
told vou that vour idea for a paper will not flv. Do not let that deter vou. Let the navsavers have
their navs; vou need not accept their view. Do not deprecate your own work. You must make a start
somewhere, and where better than at the beginning of vour research:
1:.1 Te conference paper
In one sense, the conference paper is reallv more difficult than the journal paper. For a start,
vou have to be verv concise, because page limits are stricter. For another, vou need to prepare
a presentation of slides, and talk about vour work before a live audience. Again, the time limits
could be verv strict, tvpicallv varving from five minutes to fifeen. In that time, a live audience
of fellow researchers, who verv likelv have first-hand, expert knowledge of what vou are saving,
engage with vou. Tev listen to what vou have to sav, thev mentallv compare vour work with what
thev know, and then thev ask vou questions designed either to clarifv or correct what vou have
said. You might have anticipated a question or two, but it does take some nerve to answer experts
asking unrehearsed questions, while vou are on vour toes. Te experience of presenting vour first
conference paper can also be reassuring, if it was well received.
Conference papers almost alwavs entail travel—sometimes overseas—and the associated ex-
penditure. If vou are not allocated an oral presentation, vou would have to make a colourful poster
of vour work, neatlv organized and well illustrated, to displav at the conference. Making a high
qualitv poster is an exercise in visual communication. You must put together at least one poster
before vou finish vour PhD: it is a good learning experience. But posters too, are expensive. Tis
is whv I said that conference papers tend to demand more than journal papers: thev consume
more time, more effort, and more monev.
If all this sounds a bit off-putting, start small. Present vour first paper at a seminar at vour
universitv. Well-run research groups generallv have scheduled research seminars sprinkled liber-
allv throughout the vear. Make sure that vou book a slot and get to show and tell what vou have
done. You mav then wish to graduate to a local svmposium or a national meeting. From there,
it is onlv a short hop to an international conference. Once vou have fought and overcome anv
initial shvness or stage-fright, vou will actuallv get to enjov the opportunitv for live dialogue and
discussion.
One salutarv side effect of conferences is that vouget to meet others working invour area. Tev
might be from a neighbouring citv, or a continent awav. If vou meet someone with whom vou feel
comfortable enough to discuss research, vou might have found a potential research collaborator
with whom vou could forge a productive working relationship. Te Internet has nullified the
tvrannv of distance. Your collaborator might be five time zones awav on the other side of the
world, but vou could be collaborating happilv and publishing copiouslv.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1¬ of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
1:.i Te journal paper
Te journal paper must be of a higher standard than the conference paper. It must be meticulouslv
researched, clearlv written up, adequatelv referenced, and revised several times afer the first draf.
You would generallv want vour paper to appear in a leading journal in vour field. See mv chapter
entitled Getting Published in World-Class Journals: A Checklist for Researchers for help on how to go
about writing a journal paper, starting with whv vou want to do it, going through the motions of
selecting a journal, and finallv battening down the hatches and writing and revising it.
Now, a word or two about what to avoid. Do not plagiarize or cheat. If vou are tempted to
indulge in either of these, I suggest that vou forget about vour PhDand do something else instead.
.
.Knowledge thrives on honesty and integrity. Our civilization has advanced to
where it is because each brick of knowledge on which it is built, is solid and of
high standard. The worst disservice one can performto knowledge as a whole
is to corrupt the process by which it is gathered and guarded.
.★
Plagiarismis using another’s ideas or work and passing it off as vour own. Whether vou do this
because vou are slipshod in vour work habits, or whether vou do it with intentional malice, vou
are plagiarizing nevertheless. If vou need to use someone else’s ideas or work, give due credit bv
attribution in a reference or a footnote, or whatever is appropriate for vour mediumof publication.
But never ever steal another’s ideas or work and pass it off as vour own.
Even worse than plagiarism is faking results. It is downright cheating. Mathematics, because
of its infallible chain of logic, is thankfullv, one subject in which cheating will alwavs be uncovered
eventuallv. A fake theorem that has been “proved” will eventuallv be unmasked for the falsehood
that it is. But in most other disciplines, cheating mav go undetected for a long time. Even the most
reputable journals have fallen victimto fraudsters who have invaded the sacred niches of research.
Your academic integritv must be guarded like a precious familv heirloom: protect vour own work
and reputation bv keeping meticulous records, and bv documenting vour work svstematicallv.
1a What to do aner you submit your thesis
While vou are working on it, the PhDbecomes a verv major part of vour life, or perhaps even vour
whole life. Once vou have submitted vour thesis, however, vou are likelv to feel a vacuum or even
become depressed. Te reason is that, what loomed ahead forever as a goal to be attained—namelv
writing up and submitting vour thesis—has now unbelievablv been accomplished. Te resulting
void is uncomfortable and even unsettling. Some hints on how to cope with this are in order.
Before vou began vour PhD vovage vou would have had a mental picture of what vou were
going to do afer that. Possible options include:
1. Returning to work withvour previous emplover if vouhadtakena leave of absence to pursue
vour PhD.
i. Seeking a position as a post-doctoral fellowat some universitv other than the one where vou
did vour PhD.
:. Applving for a teaching position in academia, whether at the same or a different universitv.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 18 of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
a. Seeking placement in a national research agencv, or the militarv, or government, or a multi-
national corporation, or a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
-. Starting vour owncompanv or organizationtodoconsulting, teaching, research, or whatever
vou feel is appropriate.
Afer thesis submission, vou should seek to be gainfullv emploved in some such activitv as
the above. Trv to be with an organization that allows vou the freedom to work on vour research
publications for at least half a dav each working week. Tat wav, vou maintain a link with vour
research while at work, and correcting vour PhD thesis when the time comes, will be less of an
effort.
1= Te last lap
Depending on vour universitv and its tradition, vou would know the fate of vour PhD thesis at
the hands of the examiners, in a time frame ranging from a few minutes afer vour oral defence,
to perhaps three months afer submission. In most cases, it will be passed with minor corrections.
You will then be given a deadline within which to make those corrections, and re-submit vour
thesis. Te universitv can then declare vour thesis “passed” and award vou vour PhD. Your task
of getting a PhD is not complete until this final stage is reached.
.
.You need to keep alive the flame of academic enquiry, and the research and
writing skills that you have carefully cultivated, until your PhDthesis has been
corrected and finally graded as “passed.”
.★
If vou are alreadv working, there mav be a tremendous reluctance to revert to “PhD candidate
mode”, and to correct the thesis carefullv and send it in. Overcome this malaise and get the job
over and done with. Running the last lap gives the greatest pain and demands the greatest effort
and will. Do it just the same and emerge victorious.
1o Suggestions for further reading
Te book, How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors, bv Phillips and Pugh [1]
is a classic worth consulting. Chapter a of that book, entitled “How not to get a PhD”, inspired
section 1o here.
Mauch and Park have written the well-received Guide to the Successful esis and Dissertation:
A Handbook for Students and Faculty [-]. Like Phillips and Pugh’s book [1] this book is addressed
to both students and facultv, allowing each partv a (rare) glimpse of the other’s viewpoint.
e PhD Application Handbook bv Bentlev [o] covers in greater detail manv of the issues ad-
dressed in this chapter. Although it is directed principallv to an audience contemplating doing
their PhD in the United Kingdom, much of the advice given in the book is generic and more
widelv applicable.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page 1o of i1
SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
1¬ Conclusion
Te PhD should be undertaken onlv if vou vourself feel the need to. A PhD is a licence to teach
at tertiarv level. It is also the portal to a research career. Whatever the reason, start on vour PhD
onlv for non-frivolous, serious reasons, about which vou vourself are convinced.
You should select vour research area, supervisor, and universitv, onlv afer searching thor-
oughlv and deliberating carefullv on all available choices. Once vou have chosen, stick with vour
choice.
Determine to succeed and never to give up. Once vou have so resolved, do not let vour gaze
be deflected. Persevere until vou are awarded the PhD degree. Hopefullv, the process instills in
vou a lifelong love for acquiring and imparting new knowledge. Use vour advanced knowledge to
become a benefactor of humankind.
Best of Luck!
References
[1] Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh. How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their
supervisors. Revised and updated ath edition. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open Uni-
versitv Press, ioo-.
[i] Dan Colman. e Top Five Collections of Free University Courses. Sept. ioo8. Uvi: http://
www.oculture.com/2008/09/the_top_five_open_course_collections.html (visited on
i¬/o:/iooo).
[:] Universities with the Best Free Online Courses. iooo. Uvi: http : / / education - portal .
com/articles/Universities_with_the_Best_Free_Online_Courses.html (visited on
i¬/o:/iooo).
[a] Andreas Petersen. free university lectures online—computer science, mathematics, physics and
more. iooo. Uvi: http://lecturefox.com/mix/ (visited on i¬/o:/iooo).
[-] Iames E. Mauch and Namgi Park. Guide to the Successful esis and Dissertation: A Handbook
for Students and Faculty. -th ed. New York: Marcel Dekker, ioo:.
[o] Peter I. Bentlev. e PhDApplication Handbook. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open Uni-
versitv Press, iooo.
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SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?
Quick Reference Guide
• A PhD is a licence to teach at university.
• Be clear why you want to do a PhD. Proceed only if you have strong personal convictions.
• After committing yourself, never vacillate. Keep on at it until you complete your PhDsuccessfully.
• Search carefully for a research field, supervisor, and university. Analyze your options and decide
where you want to do your PhD, under whose supervision, and in what area.
• You cannot fail to get a PhD unless you give it up yourself.
• When you encounter difficulties, consult with your supervisors, your fellow students, and those
with experience.
• Master your subject.
• Survey the field and draft a clear and feasible research proposal.
• Plan your research and execute it with care.
• Write up your work, present papers at conferences, and publish in journals.
• Prepare carefully for your oral defence.
• Submit your thesis, make the necessary corrections, and fulfil your destiny armed with a PhD.
· R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, io1o Page i1 of i1

SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS

So You Want to Do a PhD?

quite happy to put into practice what they have studied, serving society, and being rewarded in return with a good salary and social status. With the rapid explosion and democratization of knowledge, however, merely completing an undergraduate degree does not always ensure a good job or a comfortable life. is spurs many to pursue graduate degree programmes that award a master’s degree or a doctorate. ose who take the latter path may do so aer joining the workforce in the “real” world, or they may remain solely in academia aer their basic degree, to complete a doctorate, teach, and do research. Whatever your purpose, and at whatever stage in your life you decide to do postgraduate work, there are certain issues that you must consider before you embark on a PhD.¹ is short guide is intended to assist the aspiring doctoral candidate in thinking things through before taking the PhD plunge. It will help you clarify for yourself, why you are doing what you are doing, what lies ahead, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to gain fulfilment in the process.

 Brief history of the PhD as a degree
e title of the undergraduate degree usually has the word bachelor in it, and comes from the Latin baccalaureus meaning “apprentice” or “advanced student”. Further study oen leads to a degree with the word master in it, and this comes from the Latin magister meaning “master”, “director”, or “teacher”, and denotes a higher qualification in that subject. Imagine an apprentice carpenter who has worked his way to become a master carpenter and the titles will fall into place. e tradition of the doctoral degree originated in Germany. e PhD degree and its siblings all embody the Latin word doctor which means teacher. e PhD or Doctor of Philosophy degree comes from the Latin Philosophiæ Doctor meaning “teacher of philosophy”. Historically, any discipline of study outside theology, medicine, and the law was considered to be philosophy. Later on, science was called natural philosophy. Today, the PhD is an advanced academic degree conferred by many universities in a variety of subjects. But bear in mind that theology, medicine, and the law, given their history, confer doctorates bearing other titles. Some universities also confer a degree called a licentiate, from the Latin licentia doctorandi meaning “qualified to teach”. is is sometimes equivalent to a master’s degree. Some universities call the PhD the DPhil degree. In the United States and most Commonwealth countries, a PhD is sufficient for the holder to be accorded teaching rights at a university. Some European universities, however, require a PhD holder to submit a postdoctoral thesis through a process known as habilitation meaning “to make able to”, before being accorded venia legendi or “permission for lecturing”.
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I .n sum, a PhD in any discipline is simply a licence to teach that subject at uni. versity level.

 Pre-requisites and processes
e aspiring doctoral candidate should have a very good undergraduate degree, or a master’s degree, before she or he can enrol for a PhD. In many universities, the candidate is required to sit
¹Or other doctoral degree. e term PhD is used generically here and also applies to other earned research doctorates, such as the MD, LLD, JD, etc.

© R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, 

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. say audio-visual documentation. he primary requirement for a PhD is that the doctoral research should result . with or without corrections. the thesis examiners will comment on whether the calibre of research is of sufficient quality to merit publication in reputable journals. Documenting the research and its outcomes by writing a dissertation or thesis and getting it passed.g. Suitably framing a topic for research and getting approval from the university to undertake it. Passing a number of qualifying examinations—usually at the final-year undergraduate level—in subjects relevant to the chosen field of research. I want to teach at university level. new knowledge remains unchanged.. . . and . is peer-reviewed research has been the gold standard that has kept knowledge untainted by fraud and plagiarism: no new knowledge is admitted into the fold unless those held to be the experts deem it so worthy. Requirements for the PhD degree vary with discipline. In praxis-oriented disciplines. in a substantial and original contribution to knowledge in the field. e. the requirement for the research to contribute significant.  Page  of  . and satisfactorily passing examinations in them. ★ . In all cases. by a panel of expert examiners. I want to do research. . T . Generally. it entails the following: . as we have seen. a licence to teach at tertiary level. a larger component of the research submission. . If a candidate has already published such research. I have won a scholarship to do a PhD.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? for qualifying examinations before doctoral enrolment is approved.  Why do you want to do a PhD? e PhD is. . Engaging in the actual research under the supervision of one or more qualified supervisors. Successfully defending the thesis orally before a panel of expert examiners and all-comers. the thesis may form a small component and. . though. One of the criteria of good research is that it should be publishable in high quality research journals in the field. and country. Enrolment in a number of advanced courses relevant to the field of research. it is a good sign that the degree is almost in the bag. music or drama. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. If the candidate has not done so. I want to secure tenure at my university. university. If one asks oneself the question “Why do I want to do a PhD degree?” the answers could be one or more of the following: .

etc. o above all. and excel because there are so few like them. choose to research something you love. it might be quite different. I want to become a specialist working in a government agency or in industry. I want to start my own consulting firm. Whatever your specific circumstances. But you must be clear why you want to do the degree before you embark upon it. you must factor in living in another country during your PhD and aer you complete it. but live in a land-locked country.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . selecting a research area is an obvious and uncomplicated decision. availability of scholarships. the above list is not exhaustive. going when all else tells you to stop. Or a combination of doctorates in law and engineering. I want to earn more money. prospective employers. Those reasons are the bedrock upon which you build your work. if you do not love the area in which you wish to do research. and a host of factors all feed into the decision of choosing your field of doctoral research. and they thrive on the challenge. If you are intending to study marine biology. some universities offer sandwich programmes in which a candidate can enrol. for a PhD in engineering and also an MD in medicine. ★ . you will not succeed. . To accommodate rare talent. I like the title Doctor before my name. Other considerations could also come in. ere are some people who just love working in trans-disciplinary areas like these. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. o. . S . You wish to progress further in the same field by enlarging upon the research that you started in your earlier degrees. If you are contemplating a PhD in economics and plan on making a killing at the stock exchange from your research. you might want to re-consider your decision before it is too late. for that will keep you . You know the field in which you earned your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. . . and that’s that. You might have started out as a pure mathematician and now want to do a PhD in physics. If you . it is vital that you are clear in your own mind why you are enrolled for the PhD. and precisely one that many have made. much less thrive. I want to fulfil an ambition to do a PhD. at is not too great a leap. S . ere will be times during your candidature when you would doubt your own sanity for having enrolled for the degree. Needless to say. choosing your field would be like taking a gamble. e reasons for doing a PhD are as numerous and varied as the human beings who enrol for the degree.  Selecting a research area In many cases. lack that bedrock of personal conviction. ★ . In other cases.  Page  of  . the job market. and are doing a PhD simply to please someone else. for example. Or the sacrifice of time or family relationships might induce you to throw in the towel before you get the degree. Location.

you will most likely sail smoothly. He or she may present you with the very arguments your examiners might. and that centre has a good track record in research. the documentation of meetings. Remember that your fellow PhD students contribute a great deal to the quality of your life at university. and which offer higher degrees within a matter of weeks. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. during the candidature. ere are also oen rules of engagement which dictate the minimum frequency of meetings. and stick with your choice steadfastly until you complete your PhD. While these are guidelines that prevent you from falling off the rails. e choice of supervisor is entwined with the choice of research topic and. the supervisor is also called the guide. or the one which offered the most attractive scholarship. guide. for many. the advisor. depending on the university and its tradition. Many universities currently mandate that every doctoral student should have at least two supervisors.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?  Choosing a university e choice of university is. they do not impact on the personal nature of interaction between supervisor and student. ★ . e only thing to avoid is shady “universities” which are not accredited. doing research on a variety of topics. Take your time to make an informed choice that you are comfortable with. and philosopher on your voyage toward a PhD. or the one that boasts of a world-famous researcher in the field. and that you do not regret later. choose carefully. Universities the world over are becoming more corporatized. . The choice of PhD supervisor can often make or break your PhD. meticulousness or lack of it. choice of university. and it is better to encounter such opposition early in the day than to have your thesis dashed to bits at your oral defence. one of whom will act as principal supervisor. Research at many universities is conducted at “Centres of Excellence” of one sort or another. work ethic. . but I mention them to alert the unwary. etc. No serious doctoral candidate would countenance participating in these laughable scams. that could help you make your choice of institution. etc. Incidentally.. While a sympathetic supervisor may be a boon. who could go a long way toward enhancing your experience as a PhD candidate. A good research centre will have a healthy diversity of PhD students. It could be a university that is in one’s hometown.  Page  of  . more homogeneous in their outlook. an antagonistic supervisor could also be a blessing in disguise. It is important that you search thoroughly. If there is a happy harmony. and have to return to the grinding wheel for another year or two. If the area in which you are contemplating research falls within the purview of such a centre at a particular university.. attitude to the topic. etc. usually on payment of fees via the Internet. a foregone conclusion. of course. etc. confront your supervisors’ counterparts. Or the choice of university might simply be a Hobson’s choice.. and more integrated with each other through the ubiquity of the Internet. It is probably the most visceral aspect of your work: where your personality. the frequency of research progress reports.  e PhD supervisor e PhD supervisor is your friend.

you decide for good reasons to do research under the supervision of an autocrat. questions that you should never be afraid to ask. You are not allowed to think for yourself or to offer an opposing viewpoint. e laissez faire or laid-back type e laissez faire character is the antithesis of the autocrat and practises the gentle art of “noninterference. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. Would you really like to work with someone like that? If in the end. this type of supervisor may be ideal for you. and disciplined enough to meet regularly. affable. So. You just do as as you are told. ey may not have enough time to meet oen or to allow a constructive two-way discussion. and the mentor-friend. be it an academic or a fellow student. make sure that someone who can is on your panel of supervisors as a co-supervisor. their eminence might dissuade you from asking fundamental questions that are troubling you. but that does not absolve you from taking responsibility for your progress and timely completion. Sometimes this might go to the extreme of meeting you perhaps only once during your entire candidature and of knowing your research topic only very superficially. and to give truthful feedback. . however. confident. . If you are self-motivated. Some autocrats are very busy people wielding enormous influence among their peers. you are generally in safe hands. Autocrats are oen intolerant of errors. be it positive or negative. function as an extension of themselves. e autocrat e autocrats wish you to work as a “glorified slave” doing their bidding. e mentor-friend e supervisor who functions as friend and mentor is ideally suited to many students. Such a relationship is obviously unequal and does little to develop selfreliance and confidence in the research student. but for the fact that they do not have enough pairs of hands and enough time. If a laissez faire supervisor cannot perform this role. Moreover. and have mastery of your subject. ey do not punish you for making mistakes but rather emphasize the didactic nature of errors: what can you learn from them? If you are fortunate enough in getting a mentor-friend type as your principal supervisor. you the poor PhD candidate. ey have achieved sufficient eminence that they are not concerned that their students will steal the limelight away from them. approachable. I shall enumerate three extreme cases: the autocrat. .SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? ere are several archetypes for the supervisor. the laissez faire character. make a pact with yourself that you will never give up your PhD because of problems with your supervisor. It is almost as if such supervisors would like to do the research themselves. Such supervisors are generally humble.  Page  of  . and among research funding agencies. ere are occasions. when it helps if you can bounce ideas off someone.” and oen the even gentler art of laziness. the university administration. Remember that it is by making mistakes that the most enduring lessons are learned. is person is able to nurture the student without stifling his or her growth as a researcher. Anyone who is unwilling to allow you to make mistakes is actually impeding your own educational development.

and the worst outcome is a hodge podge of unrelated research projects that cannot satisfy the university that it is a single integrated body of work. if all students under a particular supervisor give you adverse comments. . Ask other PhD students Other PhD students are oen the most reliable source of information about how different academics stack up as PhD supervisors. . perhaps you should look elsewhere. from your other supervisor(s) and resolve the matter productively and amicably with all of them. you should be able to seek counsel. comfortably and confidentially. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. Ask questions like these from which you can get objective answers untainted by opinion. Your PhD scholarship could have come from a previous successful grant application. e student is then a glorified servant. that is a red flag which you should not ignore. do your mite cheerfully if you are asked to contribute an explanatory paragraph or two. If you ask enough students—spread across different research areas and supervisors in the department—you will soon be able to form an overall picture from their answers that will help you select your supervisor. You should also ask subjective questions. or least warn you about whom you should stay away from. If you have a problem with your principal supervisor. If you did. suitable for the award of a PhD. much like in the autocratic case. But take care that you are not taken advantage of: for example. and must be taken with a grain of salt. Because you are doing research and uncovering new knowledge. perhaps to maintain continued research funding. it is important that your supervisors have enough collective research supervision experience to identify potential cul de sacs into which you should not stray. it would not be research in the first place. Detours Beware of supervisors who constantly keep changing the goalposts of the research problem. neither your supervisor nor you can be expected to know what your research outcomes would be. However. especially from the student’s viewpoint.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . If not. and many PhD students are expected to pitch in when their supervisor writes a grant application. Enquire and seek their counsel before you make your choice.  Page  of  . or where your research would ultimately lead. you should not be asked to shoulder the burden of writing the whole grant application. So. how soon does a supervisor grant a request for a meeting? How soon before a query relating to the research is answered? If it takes half a semester before a supervisor responds to an urgent question. you could be doing much and achieving little. Another danger from supervisors is that they could lead you down a track that takes you away from your main research topic and that could potentially be a dead end. and perhaps a list of publications. To avoid being trapped by this. You might be pressed into service to provide material for these. It is critically important that you have a clearly defined research proposal with definite milestones and a final goal. For example. does the student feel that the supervisor is fair? How productive are meetings with the supervisor? Does the supervisor appear to be out of his or her depth in the particular research topic? Is there any aspect of the student-supervisor relationship that arouses unease in the student? Answers to such subjective questions reflect on both the student and the supervisor. Grant applications Research is critically dependant upon funding. For example.

so that regardless of research outcome. seek a principal supervisor who has honesty and integrity. that are worthy of further study. e topic of research is then enunciated. F . my personal advice is to forgo the eminent supervisor and work under the guidance of a lesser achiever who has honesty and integrity. If these qualities are lacking in an otherwise eminent person. One follows a well-worn path to search out and scope a problem of sufficient interest and impact. ★ .” Suppose at the end of about four years of full time research. or that they could not work fruitfully with their supervisor. you may not have le yourself enough leeway to claim completion of research. An example will help here. or that. completing examinable units. the candidate is asked to undertake a survey of the literature in the broad research area. Beware the rolling stone Some students start out on a project with a supervisor who has inspired them only to find out that the topic was not interesting enough. Unfortunately. is leads to a change of topic. or of supervisor. In some cases. you had defined your proposal to be “An investigation into the production of a hybrid black-coloured rose. the closest you could get was a very deep purple rose. Avoid being caught in this trap of endless change of topic and supervisor. aer a period of preliminary study. reflect and choose very carefully. I reiterate: explore thoroughly. it might lead to the same problems again. or both. You would also have laid a solid foundation for future research that could very well lead to a perfect black rose. and . Universities vary in how seriously they approach the formulation of the research proposal. . You will be wasting valuable time. Honesty and integrity As the last word on supervisors. pursue your goal steadfastly until the end. I would say that above all else. One does not wander willy nilly in search of inspiration on what research to do next.  e research proposal Your research proposal is a vital document. but not a strictly black one. and will achieve nothing in the end unless you stick to your topic and supervisor.  Page  of  . of hitherto unseen depth of colour. If instead. a degree may be awarded at the end. You could define your topic to be “e creation of a hybrid black-coloured rose.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . but which has hitherto not been studied. She or he must master the basic knowledge in the field by self-study. What is more. but rather because of fear or anger or some other emotion. It sets the tone and goal for anywhere between three years (full time) and eight years (part time) of your research life. you could claim to have completed your research. such as in the above hypothetical case of producing a hybrid black rose. the proposal would extend the envelope of existing knowledge. or existing contradictions or paradoxes. Suppose you wanted to do research to create a black-coloured rose. If this change were made without enough thought and analysis. In some universities. and must identify the major unanswered questions. is a significant advance.” you could very well claim that a purple rose. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar.

the student is given free rein and may not have an idea about where he or she is headed. . Worse still. is means writing the thesis and preparing for your oral defence. What is the closest body of existing knowledge and who are the research leaders for that? e candidate will very likely be quizzed. Do not think of writing up as an aerthought or © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. I have written a separate chapter entitled How to Write a esis where I have gone into the process of thesis writing in some depth. and viewed from all angles. and the proposal turned over several times like a pancake. Is it something that has already been done before? . make sure you are not. esis writing ★ . Has the proposal been formulated carefully so that the student may be awarded the degree regardless of the research outcome. In your case. so as not to prejudice the granting of a degree later on. ey will ask questions like these: . Is the scope feasible for the envisaged time frame? . It is time and effort well spent. put it off for as long as they can. Is it well-founded on the existing body of knowledge? . ere are universities where there is no formal proposal process.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? e candidate must then carefully summarize the existing state of knowledge and must formulate the research proposal carefully. whether positive or negative? . Neither of these should be taken lightly. Read it carefully before you start your research work. It is then that the knotty problem of “what in the world have I worked on for four years?” suddenly strikes the student with alarming force. before the committee gives its blessing. Writing is a demanding discipline. . extra-mural experts. is proposal must then be presented to a committee of academic faculty and perhaps.  Page  of  . ose who do it well make it seem effortless. You would then start off on the right footing. You should start work on your thesis from the very beginning. Even if your university is relaxed about a research proposal. ose who do not excel at it look upon it as an unpleasant chore. Panic oen ensues before a plan for a patchwork quilt of a thesis is worked on. and take steps to formulate a rigorous and worthwhile proposal. Do not ever allow yourself to get into this mess. it is fulfilling the requirements for the PhD. ose who dread it. until expiry of a scholarship or financial imperatives finally force the thesis to be written. in consultation with your panel of supervisors.  Visualizing the end: thesis writing and the oral defence Successful people oen strongly visualize the goal that they are striving to achieve. in consultation with the panel of supervisors. . Make sure you are not in the last category. Is it interesting enough to be worthwhile? . who will debate on its acceptability.

. It is therefore instructive to look at the ways in which you might be persuaded to give up and also how to avoid that. Let it be memorable and triumphant. Prepare your talk using appropriate technology. Speak clearly and slowly. I do not mean that you should be arrogant. Make sure that you have enough material but not too much. e initial learning curve is steep. and as long as you do not engage in deceit or unacceptable behaviour. the rewards are great. TEX-based LTEX and XETEX document preparation systems and allied soware for preparing illustrations and managing bibliographies. ²Also called viva voce or simply viva. Your thesis is the first document by which your examining committee will encounter your work. and possibly a full year of sustained effort to produce a good quality thesis. . Many universities now require the thesis to be available electronically. Especially valuable is the advice of hundreds if not thousands of academics and researchers from all fields. I heartily recommend this path. Banish such thoughts and visualize yourself as the expert and your committee as a bunch of school kids whom you are going to enlighten. who are available for help through Internet newsgroups and mailing lists. Practise as many as twenty times. Be prepared for such questions by reading up thoroughly on related research.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? something that you can do overnight. Use a document typesetting program and bibliographic reference management program that you are comfortable with. e fact that they are not fellow students but experienced and learned academics might make this seem an uneven gladiatorial contest. Give yourself enough time. Anticipate questions that you might be asked. It is better to have too few slides than too many. Remember that some experts may have only glancing acquaintance with your topic and could ask questions around the topic rather than on it. if you have not made a choice yet. Realize that you get to do an oral defence of your PhD only once in your life. so that your oral defence is flawless. Give it your best shot and do yourself a favour. without any hassles.  How not to “not get a PhD”³ ★ . say in Portable Document Format (PDF). once you have been enrolled as a doctoral candidate. The only way not to get a PhD is to give it up yourself. put on an adversarial stance in order to ferret out any weaknesses that may lurk within it. esis preparation can be aided by the judicious use of soware. open source. Believe me: it takes at least six months. ere is something unnerving about a face-to-face encounter with experts who. however sympathetic they may be toward your work. (literally “with living voice”) at British and European universities. I perA sonally use the freely available.  Page  of  . ³Inspired by chapter  of []. ere is no other way. . Of course you should be master of your own work. but once you have mastered that. but please do not do yourself the disservice of becoming nervous or dumbstruck before your committee. if necessary. Oral defence e oral defence² is perhaps the most dreaded part of the whole PhD process. Ensure that whatever soware you have chosen to prepare your thesis is capable of seamlessly exporting the output in the prescribed format. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar.

. You then run the risk of driing away from the immediacy of your research and settling into the workaday routine. now seems like an endeavour undertaken in a fit of insanity. you can do so easily. What seemed such a charming proposition at first. But when the scholarship runs out. ere is no immediate feedback when you lag behind or slack off. But remember that this freedom comes with responsibility. is is where your reasons for doing your PhD come into play. is varies by country and university. If you are disciplined from the beginning. . be businesslike. Time It is very easy to squander time during the early stages of your doctoral work. vulnerable lap when you complete your research and write up your thesis. on top of other pressures. You would have already done your literature search and perhaps written an interim report or two.  Page  of  . you might regret deciding to do a PhD in the first place. working on the same topic. en you will not have the pressure of time. on track. and on time. You could also use work and its pressure as an excuse to get away from writing your thesis. But you would suddenly come to the realization that you are well and truly at sea and rudderless too! You would despair of ever being able to do research. If you can get an academic job—like a tutor or teaching assistant—at the university where you are enrolled. you may not have the luxury of working full time on your research or thesis writing. the task seems hopelessly overwhelming. complete your PhD and submit your thesis before your scholarship runs out. you risk not completing your thesis. If you fall into this trap. If not. Worse still. use it frugally.from the start of your programme. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. Start early and revise your dras so that your thesis can be passed with few or no corrections. Your PhD might be your first taste of academic freedom away from the regimentation of undergraduate assignments and examinations. T . Like seasickness. discipline yourself and write up your thesis. Helplessness About six months into your research proper. that would be ideal to fund you over the final. o avoid the time-trap. ese scholarships are subject to satisfactory documented progress and could be renewed perhaps for an extra semester or two. ★ . You are responsible for your time. ey will keep you focused. Whatever the demands on your time and energy. you might be forced to seek employment outside academia. might pip you to the finish. Do not procrastinate on writing up.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . but quite a few others do. Many universities have a cut-off time frame aer which your PhD candidature will not be renewed. you will feel a sense of helplessness. Better still. You might be scared that someone else somewhere. But retribution is swi and sudden when you run out of time. You need to pep talk yourself out of this mood of despair. but you do not have an indefinite period within which to complete. Money Most students complete their PhDs on scholarships because higher degree fees are prohibitive. a good many do not suffer from such feelings.

talk to some else: a fellow student. So. your PhD. Each of these situations brings with it its own emotional stresses and strains. If nothing else appeals to you. Romance and marriage may and oen do claim your attention and time. an academic from another discipline. or a performance that clearly does not gel. You need to be de at juggling these competing demands and yet have your eye on the goal. and thereby underscore the importance of your own research. Perhaps you have just seen a newly published paper that is about the very thing you are working on. Or do some writing up on your thesis. a soware error you cannot localize. or simply a family friend. Competing priorities ★ . Whatever your field. You do not want to take a break that is so long or comfortable that you do not feel like returning to your PhD work. as being of interest to other researchers. T . It is easy to get discouraged and view things as being worse than they really are. do something mind-numbingly relaxing like typing up your bibliography. But you do need to do something definite and different to dispel the staleness or distaste that makes you lose motivation. a faculty member who may not be on your panel. Loss of motivation ★ . If you are young and proceeding to your PhD immediately aer finishing your first or second degrees. Perhaps some of the factors outlined previously have knocked a hole in your determination. ere could be role reversals. it is even more complicated. Indeed. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. Sometimes. If you are a mature-age student with a spouse and family to look aer. and whatever your problem. and new. ompleting a PhD requires an almost monastic dedication to the task at hand. you might find your social life competing for attention. this distaste is a sign that you need a break. Perhaps the just published paper approaches your problem from another viewpoint and does not really pose a threat to your work. .SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . If you are committed to your family and to your PhD. . your research could still be relevant. and even times when you are not available to your family for extended periods. Contemplate a holiday. data that somehow seems inconsistent. C . If you are in need of a fresh viewpoint. and original. you might develop a distaste for what you are doing because of over-exposure to the subject. and you fear it may steal not only your thunder but also your chances of getting a PhD. he worst thing that can happen is for you to lose motivation at some point in . Do something sufficiently different from what you have been doing so far. You need your spouse’s unflinching support for your enterprise of getting a PhD. it might highlight the importance of your research topic. You then have to balance your priorities so that you are fulfilled as a person without compromising on your goal of a PhD. perhaps aer presenting a conference paper overseas. and yet somehow linked to your work. you will find a way to balance the two and succeed at both. a theorem on which you are stuck.  Page  of  . It might be a monotonous laboratory routine.

and gumption ere will be inevitable setbacks on your road to a PhD.  Page  of  .” . You might have had a verbal tiff with your supervisor. and gumption. oen complete with questions and assignments. Follow the rules and satisfy the powers that be. Stanford. “been there. e art of doing research is rapidly changing. that you can use for self-education and self-assessment. Your first rejection letter betokens your membership into their distinguished company. and enrol in them if you can. Avoid dereliction of bureaucratic requirements because it is such a trivial reason for which to jeopardize your PhD. been examined. Do not be discouraged. You might have received a rejection letter for a journal submission.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? ★ . Needless to say. you should resist the temptation to paper over the cracks in your knowledge. you should have already mastered the fundamentals of your subject by now. and e Open University. o not ever lose your motivation. en identify well-written undergraduate or graduate texts in the field and work through them. You are on the road to becoming a teacher (or doctor) in your subject at an advanced level. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. Bureaucratic dereliction Sometimes not filing a progress report to fulfil university or scholarship regulations can lead to your candidature being revoked. Keep working away on your publications until they see the light of day. especially in the interconnected world of knowledge available though the Internet and the World Wide Web. guts. like the University of California. Remember that even after your thesis has . Here we look briefly at the art of doing research per se. Remember that the greatest scholars have had their books and papers rejected. it is only after all corrections are in that you can relax and say. See my chapter entitled Harnessing the Power of the Web to Learn and Do Research for an up-to-date summary.  e art of doing research e PhD is ultimately a testament to the fact that you can conduct supervised research. If you have not. You might have made an expensive mistake in an experiment. If your knowledge of the foundations of your home discipline are shaky. . Know your subject thoroughly ere is no substitute for knowledge. have all started putting some of their courses online for free [–]. the Indian Institutes of Technology.  Will power. keeping your eyes ever on your goal. Oxford. Berkeley. done that. For this you need will power. Many of the world’s leading universities. MIT. Yale. guts. e stout of heart and firm of resolve will prevail in the end. e list is endless. the first thing to do is to acknowledge that fact. You are not alone. Find out if relevant final-year undergraduate or graduate units are taught at your university. D . Surf the web. Carnegie-Mellon University.

but an object that is distinct from its background. e detail that you see close up cannot and should not obscure the global overview that you had when viewing the silhouette. you should progress by reading and assimilating the classic seminal papers in the turf where you have chosen to pitch your research tent. Read their papers. Look at what is being done at present. nevertheless. If you are in a praxis-based discipline. Both are essential to demonstrate mastery of your chosen research area. When something is far away we see it as the merest speck. as a relative newcomer. is is exactly how your approach to your research field should pan out. Do also read important and interesting papers by relatively unknown researchers because they might embody valuable insights. is is the time you should prepare a critical survey of the research literature in your field. Read and internalize seminal papers Once you have mastered the basics of your field. test yourself by asking an expert to gauge your performance in the area. M . Do not gloss over a paper simply because of its age. Are there any contradictions or paradoxes or glaring omissions? Is there anything that you. If you are able to breeze through them. Finally when we are right in front of the object.  Page  of  . we are able to make out a silhouette that allows us to guess what the object could be. Most of all. Just as those attempting to conquer the Everest train hard. we see it clearly for what it is. so should you use the papers written by others to prepare yourself to prosecute your own research. Prepare a critical survey By now you should have a solid feel for your research area. un-identifiable as anything specific. . Look at how leading researchers have surveyed the area.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? Use whatever means you can to bring yourself up to speed in your discipline. Identify the trailblazers in your area. is should give you a broad view of where the research is heading. Identify what needs to be done. you have an objective measure of your own mastery of the fundamentals of your subject. Challenge yourself by attempting some past final-year examination papers in relevant units at your university. ★ . Only then are you ready to ascend your chosen peak of research. y unequivocal advice to you is to ensure that you have an unshakable found. Look at what has gone on before. ation of knowledge in your chosen discipline(s) before you start on the specialized research that will earn you your PhD. is step in the process has an analogy in the way we see things. . details and all. Do not fret over the time spent on this: it is an investment in knowledge that you cannot do without. Once you have got the large scale picture. As we get still closer. you should internalize this newfound knowledge. e authors of yesteryear were oen the crème de la crème of their generation and their papers could still yield rare nuggets of truth that might have been missed by others. As it approaches closer. and methodically prepare themselves by scaling similar peaks. is overview of the field is vital in formulating your research proposal. you are qualified to enter the inner sanctum of advanced knowledge. find strange or unsettling? © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. it is clear what the object is. Single out interesting questions that have not been answered. but the details escape us. but has not been.

 Repeat some previous work You are now ready to commence your research proper. It is a bit like cooking a dish for the first time. the most valuable and durable research currency you will earn from your PhD. a performance of a forgotten dance. money. T . his critical survey reflects your state-of-the-field summary of the research area. Ideally. I conquered. or getting the approval of university ethics committees. T .” In all likelihood.  Page  of  . . is allows you to concentrate on technique and skills. Make sure that all bureaucratic hurdles are surmounted.” which translate to “I came. You should marshal all the necessary resources so that your research is not delayed by their lack. whether it be laboratory-based experiments. Vidi.after your assimilation of the research literature. when you successfully conclude your “repeat experiment” you would have gained the confidence that you too can do what others have done. his conviction or sense of “can do. a psychology experiment needing many volunteers. or analyzing the work habits of computer geeks. perhaps some laboratory animals or human volunteers. and double blind experimental protocols to © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. . ere is also the added satisfaction that what you do could later benefit humankind in some way or another. an ethically-constrained study of a drug on humans. some data. etc. Sometimes this presents its own set of “starting problems. Because someone else has already done it. Plan and execute your own original work You are now ready to plan and execute your own original work. Julius Caesar is famed for his words “Veni.” One way to ease your entry into research is to repeat something that someone else has already done successfully. You are likely to need time. I saw. . Doing research now does seem to be within your grasp. you will love doing whatever you are doing and become totally absorbed in it. travel plans. a field trip to an anthropological site. ★ . is .” earned through your own hard work.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? ★ . is will probably be your first taste of what it means to “do research. Vici. ere are specific questions that you need to answer if you are doing research related to human health. a computer simulation. Finally.” Let your critical survey be the “I saw” part of this process and let it lead to the “I conquered” stage of your PhD journey. you now have the expert knowledge required to formulate your research proposal intelligently. is mental absorption leads to great inner fulfilment. You get a “high” because you are creatively engaged in something you passionately believe in. illuminated by your own insight. You will need controls for experiments. following a recipe written by a chef. whether they be customs and immigration formalities. You should plan your work beforehand. hardware. there is no anxiety about whether what is proposed is feasible. soware.

W . Or you enlist the help of passersby. . the setbacks you faced. you are not working alone. Do your work systematically. ★ . make sure you encounter them head on now. You have the benevolent oversight of your panel of supervisors. and in one place. At this stage.  Page  of  . Because the PhD is supervised research. If you cannot make head or tail of them when you look them over aer. there is the literature. make sure that you have written everything up clearly and le nothing unrecorded. rite results using ink. Moreover. Imagine your research as being a vehicle. how you solved them. but be aware that time is not on your side. some of it invariably will.cannot afford to do is to stagnate. etc. While all this material need not find its way into your thesis. Whatever will help a fellow researcher later in time. At this stage. Your original contribution will very likely come in many parts. One of them will certainly have some word of wisdom that could direct you out of your current impasse. . and do it well the first and final time. depending on your field of research. Do not write on paper scraps but in a prop. You put your shoulder to the vehicle and try to get it out. and seek professional statistical help if necessary. Record your thoughts. The one thing you should not and . say six months. or because a multimedia record of a performance you directed was out of focus and noisy. You do not get out and wail your heart out in despair. ere is the Web. flashes of inspiration. e first person who needs to understand your experiments or projects is yourself. whether it be optimizing a protocol. there are fellow PhD students to whom you could turn for assistance. ere will be several experiments. You do what it takes to get it unstuck. or some protocol was not properly observed. legibly. Practise the self-discipline of recording everything neatly. then you have done yourself in. If you get stuck If you get stuck while conducting your original research. understandably. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. It is paramount that you should keep good records. or some drawing was missing. or a few performances. Do not panic if you have consumed more time.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? exclude human and interpretational bias. en. you should be somewhere between the half and three quarter mark of your PhD programme. And a Google search might be all you need to pick yourself up and get on track again. So. be kind to yourself. erly bound notebook. Or you call for help on your mobile phone. e same applies to your research work. ★ . you are giving birth to the original component of research that will go into your thesis. or a few of whatever. Each time you are finished with one chunk of work. or avoiding a pitfall. to a future generation of researchers. If there are any such special issues impacting on your research. say a motorcar. One of the most heart-breaking events you want to avoid is to repeat past work because some parameter was not recorded. rather than wait to have your results trashed later because of poor protocols. Seek your supervisors’ input on this. not pencil. or a number of projects. you can turn to many sources for help. is valuable enough to be bequeathed. through your thesis. It is suddenly stuck in the mud.

because page limits are stricter. but it does take some nerve to answer experts asking unrehearsed questions. and more money. Again. you will actually get to enjoy the opportunity for live dialogue and discussion. Making a high quality poster is an exercise in visual communication. If you are not allocated an oral presentation. Do not deprecate your own work. and then they ask you questions designed either to clarify or correct what you have said. the time limits could be very strict. but you could be collaborating happily and publishing copiously. Overcome that reluctance. Present your first paper at a seminar at your university. Once you have fought and overcome any initial shyness or stage-fright. if it was well received. Aer you have completed some module of research. expert knowledge of what you are saying. neatly organized and well illustrated. they mentally compare your work with what they know. Your collaborator might be five time zones away on the other side of the world. while you are on your toes. Perhaps a fellow researcher or PhD candidate told you that your idea for a paper will not fly. it is only a short hop to an international conference. You might experience some hesitation in doing this. Very likely. who very likely have first-hand. ey might be from a neighbouring city. You might have anticipated a question or two. you think that what you have to say may not be significant enough to merit a conference paper. You must make a start somewhere. You may then wish to graduate to a local symposium or a national meeting. If you meet someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to discuss research. you need not accept their view. Let the naysayers have their nays. Let the referees who review your paper decide that. If all this sounds a bit off-putting. Because you have mastered your subject and critically surveyed the literature.  Page  of  . you could be in a position to prepare and present your first conference paper. ey listen to what you have to say. From there. engage with you. you have to be very concise. you need to prepare a presentation of slides. the conference paper is really more difficult than the journal paper. you might have found a potential research collaborator with whom you could forge a productive working relationship. and talk about your work before a live audience. start small. One salutary side effect of conferences is that you get to meet others working in your area. Well-run research groups generally have scheduled research seminars sprinkled liberally throughout the year. to display at the conference. But posters too. or a continent away. It need not be daunting.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?  Writing conference and journal papers Writing your first research paper is a new experience. e conference paper In one sense. Make sure that you book a slot and get to show and tell what you have done. You must put together at least one poster before you finish your PhD: it is a good learning experience. In that time. and where better than at the beginning of your research? . Do not let that deter you. For another. Conference papers almost always entail travel—sometimes overseas—and the associated expenditure. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. is is why I said that conference papers tend to demand more than journal papers: they consume more time. a live audience of fellow researchers. e Internet has nullified the tyranny of distance. typically varying from five minutes to fieen. you know your subject. e experience of presenting your first conference paper can also be reassuring. more effort. you would have to make a colourful poster of your work. are expensive. For a start.

Once you have submitted your thesis. one subject in which cheating will always be uncovered eventually. e reason is that.  What to do aer you submit your thesis While you are working on it. Before you began your PhD voyage you would have had a mental picture of what you were going to do aer that. Whether you do this because you are slipshod in your work habits. what loomed ahead forever as a goal to be attained—namely writing up and submitting your thesis—has now unbelievably been accomplished. Our civilization has advanced to where it is because each brick of knowledge on which it is built. e resulting void is uncomfortable and even unsettling. I suggest that you forget about your PhD and do something else instead. give due credit by attribution in a reference or a footnote. If you need to use someone else’s ideas or work. or whether you do it with intentional malice. or whatever is appropriate for your medium of publication. is thankfully. is solid and of . K . and revised several times aer the first dra. nowledge thrives on honesty and integrity. Now. e journal paper e journal paper must be of a higher standard than the conference paper. Some hints on how to cope with this are in order. . See my chapter entitled Getting Published in World-Class Journals: A Checklist for Researchers for help on how to go about writing a journal paper. Your academic integrity must be guarded like a precious family heirloom: protect your own work and reputation by keeping meticulous records. starting with why you want to do it. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. It is downright cheating. Possible options include: . clearly written up. Seeking a position as a post-doctoral fellow at some university other than the one where you did your PhD. because of its infallible chain of logic. a word or two about what to avoid. Returning to work with your previous employer if you had taken a leave of absence to pursue your PhD. The worst disservice one can perform to knowledge as a whole is to corrupt the process by which it is gathered and guarded. . the PhD becomes a very major part of your life. A fake theorem that has been “proved” will eventually be unmasked for the falsehood that it is. ★ . and finally battening down the hatches and writing and revising it. adequately referenced. You would generally want your paper to appear in a leading journal in your field. Do not plagiarize or cheat. however.  Page  of  . Applying for a teaching position in academia. Plagiarism is using another’s ideas or work and passing it off as your own. you are plagiarizing nevertheless. Even the most reputable journals have fallen victim to fraudsters who have invaded the sacred niches of research.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . Mathematics. or perhaps even your whole life. you are likely to feel a vacuum or even become depressed. But in most other disciplines. high standard. cheating may go undetected for a long time. But never ever steal another’s ideas or work and pass it off as your own. and by documenting your work systematically. It must be meticulously researched. going through the motions of selecting a journal. If you are tempted to indulge in either of these. Even worse than plagiarism is faking results. whether at the same or a different university.

Overcome this malaise and get the job over and done with. or government. Like Phillips and Pugh’s book [] this book is addressed to both students and faculty. e university can then declare your thesis “passed” and award you your PhD. ou need to keep alive the flame of academic enquiry. teaching. In most cases. in a time frame ranging from a few minutes aer your oral defence. You will then be given a deadline within which to make those corrections. until your PhD thesis has been corrected and finally graded as “passed. or whatever you feel is appropriate.  Suggestions for further reading e book. e PhD Application Handbook by Bentley [] covers in greater detail many of the issues addressed in this chapter. Although it is directed principally to an audience contemplating doing their PhD in the United Kingdom. and the research and . Your task of getting a PhD is not complete until this final stage is reached. writing skills that you have carefully cultivated. entitled “How not to get a PhD”.  e last lap Depending on your university and its tradition. you should seek to be gainfully employed in some such activity as the above. and correcting your PhD thesis when the time comes. by Phillips and Pugh [] is a classic worth consulting. or a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? . will be less of an effort. Mauch and Park have written the well-received Guide to the Successful esis and Dissertation: A Handbook for Students and Faculty []. at way. ★ . Running the last lap gives the greatest pain and demands the greatest effort and will. you would know the fate of your PhD thesis at the hands of the examiners. . Chapter  of that book. inspired section  here. Try to be with an organization that allows you the freedom to work on your research publications for at least half a day each working week. Starting your own company or organization to do consulting. How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. Seeking placement in a national research agency. Aer thesis submission. or the military. you maintain a link with your research while at work. and re-submit your thesis. or a multinational corporation. and to correct the thesis carefully and send it in. research. it will be passed with minor corrections. there may be a tremendous reluctance to revert to “PhD candidate mode”. to perhaps three months aer submission. Y . allowing each party a (rare) glimpse of the other’s viewpoint.  Page  of  . © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. much of the advice given in the book is generic and more widely applicable. Do it just the same and emerge victorious.” If you are already working.

Best of Luck! References [] Estelle M. [] Universities with the Best Free Online Courses. Berkshire.html (visited on //). do not let your gaze be deflected. Maidenhead. [] James E. Bentley. . You should select your research area. physics and more. the process instills in you a lifelong love for acquiring and imparting new knowledge. How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. .com/2008/09/the_top_five_open_course_collections. supervisor. and university. : http : / / education . Sept. Berkshire. Revised and updated th edition. mathematics. com/articles/Universities_with_the_Best_Free_Online_Courses.html (visited on //). Persevere until you are awarded the PhD degree.portal . start on your PhD only for non-frivolous. . Once you have so resolved. e Top Five Collections of Free University Courses. : http://lecturefox. Mauch and Namgi Park. Pugh. about which you yourself are convinced. © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. It is also the portal to a research career. Determine to succeed and never to give up. Maidenhead. . [] Peter J.com/mix/ (visited on //). [] Andreas Petersen. England: Open University Press. Phillips and Derek S. only aer searching thoroughly and deliberating carefully on all available choices.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD?  Conclusion e PhD should be undertaken only if you yourself feel the need to. serious reasons. New York: Marcel Dekker. . Hopefully.oculture. e PhD Application Handbook. : http:// www. Use your advanced knowledge to become a benefactor of humankind. Guide to the Successful esis and Dissertation: A Handbook for Students and Faculty. free university lectures online—computer science. th ed. . A PhD is a licence to teach at tertiary level. England: Open University Press. Whatever the reason. stick with your choice. Once you have chosen.  Page  of  . [] Dan Colman.

supervisor. • You cannot fail to get a PhD unless you give it up yourself. make the necessary corrections. and those with experience. present papers at conferences. • Master your subject. • Plan your research and execute it with care. • Submit your thesis. and in what area. and publish in journals. Analyze your options and decide where you want to do your PhD. and university. • Write up your work. • Be clear why you want to do a PhD. and fulfil your destiny armed with a PhD. • After committing yourself. • Prepare carefully for your oral defence. Proceed only if you have strong personal convictions. Keep on at it until you complete your PhD successfully.SECRETS OF ACADEMIC SUCCESS So You Want to Do a PhD? Quick Reference Guide • A PhD is a licence to teach at university.  Page  of  . © R (Chandra) Chandrasekhar. • When you encounter difficulties. consult with your supervisors. under whose supervision. • Survey the field and draft a clear and feasible research proposal. your fellow students. • Search carefully for a research field. never vacillate.

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